Smartphones: Size matters

Smartphones: Size matters

Summary: Today's smartphones are so full featured that mainstream consumers often use size as a deciding factor.


I spend a lot of time wondering what exciting technology will drive smartphones of the future. A big reason I do that is the volume of correspondence I get from folks asking about it. This leads me to speak with a bunch of smartphone owners about their usage, and what they want in their phones of the future.

Note 2 600
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

What I've come to realize is that outside the smartphone enthusiast crowd, most folks are quite happy with their current phone, no matter what brand/platform. The only feature I hear the people on the street ask for in their next smartphone is that it be bigger or smaller.

We recently asked readers, a group tuned into the technology used in smartphones, what the next big thing they'd like to see in smartphones is. Some good features were mentioned, making it clear that enthusiasts are wanting more from the smartphone.

That's not what I'm hearing from the mainstream crowd, those consumers who happily use their smartphone a lot in their daily lives. It's not a scientific survey by any means but it's clear to me that regular people are for the most part quite happy with the functionality of their current smartphone.

The smartphone has evolved so rapidly that all of the things the consumer wants can be done quite handily. Whether that's emailing, text messaging, Facebook following, tweeting, or web browsing, today's smartphones universally do that without compromise.

Entertainment is handled nicely by the smartphone. You can listen to music, play games, and watch YouTube videos with ease. Most smartphones can be used to read ebooks for those who leave the Kindle at home.

I ask a lot of mainstream consumers what they want in their next smartphone. Surprisingly, what I hear from them far more than any other feature is that their next phone purchase will be a product either smaller or larger than their current handset.

Many people use their smartphone a lot, so the viewing screen is very important. That's the reason I'm given by many smartphone owners for wanting a phone with a bigger screen than they currently have. They want to see more stuff on the display, so a larger phone is what they want.

Conversely, those who tell me they want a smaller phone are usually owners of big phones that they find hard to manipulate in the hand. They like having the big viewing screen, but find the phone hard to carry and handle one-handed. They've decided that ease of manipulation trumps having lots of information displayed at once.

What comes through loud and clear in most the discussions I have with regular consumers is that they are quite satisfied with the capabilities in their current phone, no matter the brand or platform it runs on. That may be why we hear that smartphone sales are slowing down, not so much due to market saturation but because consumers' needs are already being met, and well.

That's got to be a concern to companies making phones. It's going to take a very innovative feature to excite this huge market, and it's not clear what that may be. There are already different-sized phones on the market, so there's no innovation there for them to fall back on. There must be some phone designers scratching their heads over what to do next.

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Topics: Mobility, Smartphones

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  • Smartphones: Size matters

    That's exactly right.
    I own the Samsung S3, so it has a big screen.

    The downside for me is also "I can not operate the phone with just one hand"
    Do even need two hands to answer a normal telephone call.

    But I would not want to have a small mobile
    I have this 'big screen' mobile phone mainly for the internet, so the big screen is just convenient for me.

    I love this phone & his big screen :)
    Paul Bastings
    • I think the next...

      ... generation of true smartphones would be based on flexible display screens - though the challenge will be how much you can bend the phone to put in your pocket and make it more manageable.

      Does the above mean Nokia's astonishing camera will not be a killer addition to the smartphones, is something that most of us cannot answer now. So the flexible display is where we should be aiming.
      • Except...

        That a flexible screen is completely pointless when the chips, boards, camera and battery aren't flexible. Its possible it may help with durability, but then I've never known someone who has actually broken the screen of a phone, just the glass in front of it and making that flexible would likely just make it more prone to scratching, which is something they have spent years trying to stop.

        Basically, I think flexible screens are going to be as much of a pointless gimmick as 3D was.
  • From the article: "consumers' needs are already being met, and well"

    I strongly disagree. Looking at smartphone features, especially display size, is not the whole story.

    Carrier data plans are simply too expensive for most people. If the carriers want more customers, they need to provide cheaper as well as "more innovative" data plans.

    Another point of disagreement regards Apple's smartphone, the iPhone. If Apple wants to reach more customers, an iPhone Mini is the likely answer provided that it comes with a mid-market price. And since the current iPhone has a display size of 4 inches, a 3.5-inch display size is probably a good starting point as components go for an iPhone Mini.

    If anything segment of the smartphone market is saturated, it's the high-end sub-market where people that can afford expensive smartphones can also afford expensive data plans.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • An iPhone with a 3.5" display is a mini?

      Wasn't that the size of the display up to the iPhone 5? Did we consider the older phones "mini"?
    • Data plans

      That is precisely why I don't have a smart phone. The plans are too expensive and it's way to easy to go over any limits, thus incurring even larger charges. Last time I checked, they wanted $30.00 per month for each phone (we have three) and that plan had download limits that would have us exceeding them fairly quickly. That's ludicrous. And that's just the basic plan. It goes up for anything meaningful. I would love to have one, they are incredibly convenient and useful. My combined phone/internet bill is high enough as it is. I'll keep my semi-smart phone until sanity prevails regarding data plans.
  • If Apple would finally release a larger iPhone it would sell in buckets

    Using an iPhone 5 after Galaxy S4 and it feels so small and annoying by comparison.

    No one is saying ditch the existing size just release a larger iPhone too.
    • Apple's problem...

      Apple's problem is that they're so worried about one product category cannibalizing sales from another, that it takes an existential threat to cajole the company into releasing certain products. Apple was so worried about a cheaper iPad mini cannibalizing sales from the iPad that they didn't produce one until long after Google and its hardware partners leveraged the 7" tablet category to gain a real foothold in the tablet market. I can pretty much guarantee that Apple is afraid of releasing a 5+ inch iPhone for fear that some consumers will pass on buying an iPad mini because their iPhablet is enough for them. Meanwhile Samsung is cleaning up with its Galaxy note series of phones. If Apple finally gets off their keister and releases a large form factor iPhone it will be because they finally come to the conclusion that there's a real danger that some users will abandon iOS because only Android offers phones in the form factor they really want.
      • I wouldn't say Samsung is "cleaning up" with the S4...

        Perhaps in the context of the average smartphone one could operate under such logic, but by comparison to their own landmark S3 the S4 has been an utter disappointment and in my opinion goes to reinforce James' point. A bunch of silly gimmicks resulting in a piss poor replacement for what was already a terrific phone.

        Handset makers will need to truly innovate if they hope to win the pocketbooks of consumers from this point forward.
        • Correction, I see you mentioned the Note...

          ...Which is actually still a good selling model for them. However I still see the S4 as a bellwether for just how much it takes to woo customers these days and the fact that the S4 just isn't doing it.

          I think we're rapidly reaching a point with smartphones which we reached with PCs recently... They're getting so powerful and feature packed that people can hang on to what they have longer and avoid upgrade-itis. I can say with relative certainty that if Apple doesn't kill it with the next iPhone I certainly won't see any need to upgrade for a long while, and doubt I will.
          • Samsung S4

            I am in love with the S4! I just hope that the battery will be easy to get in a few years. Moving on to another phone is NOT for me! I hate that accessories & batteries are hard to find just a few years after coming out on the market. I also agree with others that more people would get smartphones if the packages were affordable. THEY ARE NOT! I know people (including most older generation) that refuse to pay $360.00 a year to read e-mail! Make it affordable, and "they will come".
        • Re: by comparison to their own landmark S3 the S4 has been an utter disappo

          No it hasn't. Samsung is reporting record profits.
    • Re: If Apple would finally release a larger iPhone it would sell in buckets

      Possibly not. The existing apps wouldn't look right. Remember how with the Iphone 5 all the apps had black bars at the top and bottom? You're looking at that sort of mass update all over again.

      IOS developers pride themselves on doing "pixel-perfect" screen layouts, hand-tuning the code instead of Android's more automatic responsive-design approach. But all that goes out the window every time Apple brings out a new form factor.
  • Is a smartphone's size REALLY the most important differentiator today?

    I would still say the ecosystem is THE most important factor when choosing a smartphone. The second most important consumer choice is the telecom carrier and the third choice would be the size of the smartphone.

    Don't get me wrong, as James stated, size DOES matter. It's an important factor and in the opinion of Mr. Kendrick's and countless others, the size of the smartphone is the most important choice.

    But when it comes to a person's "religion", the ecosystem will win out every time over a consumer's preference in his or her's smartphone's exterior dimensions.
    • Ecosystem isn't determining factor

      No one ecosystem is any better. They all have music, apps, Bluetooth, etc.

      The only ones who insist that ecosystem is a huge differentiator are those who picked an ecosystem that has lost its advantage a long time ago.
      • That all ecosystems are equivalent is certainly a debatable point, Todd.

        But your logic fails as expressed in your second paragraph. Specifically, consider the following rebuttal.

        If, as you state, those that insist that the ecosystem does matter, than those individuals who chose a Windows 8 smartphone did so knowing their ecosystem had lost (if it ever had any) any advantages long before that Windows 8 smartphone purchase.

        In like manner, any Android smartphone purchase was done in the full knowledge that any of it's advantages (if any had existed previously) over a competing ecosystem and their smartphones, had long ago evaporated into thin air.

        Likewise with Apple smartphone purchases.

        So, either their are NO advantages between ecosystems (as you state) or consumers MAY choose an inferior experience with full foreknowledge beforehand. (The could luck out and buy and Apple iPhone. Grin. Or an HTC one. Or luck out with a Lumina 920 purchase. Using your logic, it would be just a matter of luck.)

        Personally, I feel that ecosystems have been shown to have demonstrative advantages vis a vis-à-vis one another and that consumers base their purchases upon those factors.
        • What are you calling "ecosystem"?

          I'm talking about cases, speakers, and apps.

          All phones have cases.

          All phones work with Bluetooth speakers.

          All phones have plenty of apps.

          All phones work with music.

          There are no ecosystem advantages. Only OS and hardware advantages. Those who want a great OS with great hardware end up choosing a WP8 device. Those who need a specialized phone (like the Note 2) end up with an Android device. Those who haven't done their research end up with iphones.
          • As most know, a computer ecosystem is a metaphore.

            And, as such, different persons may interpret or define that metaphor in different ways.

            For example, upon reading your comment requesting a clarification of that term, one internet search led me to an MSDN blog by Steven Sinofsky dated Sep 18, 2008, in which Steven defines the ecosystem in this way.

            And I quote, "Ecosystem and choice go hand in hand. When we build Windows we think of a number of key representatives within the ecosystem beyond Windows: PC makers, Hardware components, Developers and Enthusiasts.

            Each of these parties has a key role to play in delivering on the PC experience and also in providing a tailored and differentiated experience, and where, companies can profit by providing unique and differentiated products and services (and choice to consumers). End quote.

            That was an elegant, IMO, definition of a computer ecosystem and it differs to your much more narrow, again IMO, definition for that metaphor.

            Personally, I agree with Mr. Sinofsky's view on this matter although to be fair, our similar opinions may not be the majority understanding of that term and your viewpoint may, in fact, be the correct one, my friend.

            Using Mr. Sinofsky's definition of an ecosystem, for example, persons who purchased an iPhone would be able to take advantage of other hardware components such as an Apple TV and software technologies, such as AirPlay. They could also take advantage of synergies that exist for certain applications by leveraging both iOS and OS X inter app data communications.

            They could also take advantage of software systems and services (Services being included in Sinofsky's views on computer ecosystems) from major third parties, such as Google and Microsoft.

            As you may expect, Todd, by using this broader definition of a computer ecosystem metaphor, advantages can be documented too numerous to mention in this post.
    • But...

      He says that most of the people in his anecdote are happy with the ecosystem they are on, so that consideration isn't driving their purchasing decision. And I would imagine that in most cases the decision about which carrier to be with is a completely separate one from the decision on which phone to buy, at least I know it is for me. Maybe that is just a consequence of the Australian market not being terribly effected by the blight of carrier exclusive phones, but I have never once thought "I really need to change mobile provider so I can get that phone".

      So, since both of those decisions are made separately from the decision on the handset itself, and given that above a certain level, which you basically can't drop below with a contracted phone, the performance of any phone is going to be good enough for most people, the size of the phone would likely become the point of differentiation.
      • Todd and I go back a bit but to answer a point that you brought up

        In the United States, the choice of which carrier will support a particular smartphone DOES matter.

        For example, it was common knowledge that when the iPhone was first introduced, Apple and AT&T had an exclusive 5 year business contract. Individuals wishing to own an iPhone were forced to accept in "some" locations a proven liability with AT&T's service regarding dropped calls and poor to nonexistent internet data connections.

        Many consumers in the States had, as their greatest iPhone wish, an ability to use Verizon's network system with an iPhone.

        This preference for a secondary carrier option for the iPhone became almost legendary during that five year period.

        In like manner, many potential consumers longed for the Nokia Lumina 920 (the Windows 8 Flagship smartphone model) when it was first announced.

        Todd, for one, expressed his desire for one on numerous occasions.

        However, Todd was quite upfront and forthright with his displeasure when he, along with numerous other individuals, found out that this particular model was only being sold exclusively thru AT&T in the states. Much gnashing of teeth ensued. (Quite reminiscent of the iPhone experience, IMO)

        Still, in Todd's case, as it was for many others, it wasn't the size of the smartphone that was the key differentiator. It was the ecosystem that prevailed over the size of the smartphone and, very reluctantly, over the choice, and in this particular case, over the non-choice of telecom providers.